March 7

The Doctors and the Holocaust

  The Doctors of the Holocaust

By: Brandi Newman

This essay examines the involvement and actions of the doctors of the Holocaust. Using examples of experiments performed by the doctors, interviews with some of the doctors, and other evidence found during my research, I will argue that the doctors acted of their own free will and not because the Nazi government made them.

The Holocaust is something that we must never forget. Its occurrence relied only "upon the indifference of bystanders in every land" (Zukier, 1994). Even today we stand by while innocent lives are taken. The recent conflicts in Rwanda or Bosnia, or past conflicts in Cambodia, are merely three examples.

Wherever genocide occurs one thing is sure to happen– individual lives become lost in massive numbers and the tolls are so large they become unbelievable. Peter Padfield asserts that "without the active and passive aid of millions of Germans, the catastrophe Nazism wrought would not have been possible . . ." (Goldhagen, 1991)

But how much did the average citizen know concerning the actions of the Nazis? Were they aware of all the horrific medical experiments and massive killings which were taking, place throughout the war? There is controversy on either side of this issue.

Some say that the citizens were aware, but did nothing. Still others claim the citizens were blind concerning the issue. There is also controversy as to the participation of the soldiers, whether it was voluntary or forced. Again, there are those who support the claim that they were willing participants, and those who say they were merely following orders. In the following paragraphs I shall examine this controversy, except in a slightly narrowed way. I shall confront the issue of whether the doctors who were conducting the medical experiments during the euthanasia program and in the death camps were forced to do so, or if they participated of their own free will. After extensive research on this matter, I have come to the conclusion that the doctors were in fact acting freely in the atrocities which took place during the Holocaust. In my mind, having read over many graphic accounts of various experiments conducted, it would not have been possible that the doctors were being forced to do what they did.

The "Euthanasia Program" did not begin in Germany until late October 1939, when the war was expected to veil it from the view of the world (Goldhagen, 1991). (The reader must keep in mind that the Holocaust and the actual war were two different, yet coinciding events. The Holocaust was the attempted extermination of the Jews and any other "undesirable" people, whereas the war was fought first to prevent Hitler’s continuing invasions and murders, and then to stop the genocide that began after the war was underway.)

This program authorized doctors to destroy those who were "undesirable." In Berlin, a state organization was formed, which allowed doctors to examine hospital and clinic records. When the doctors found patients who were deemed "incurable," they marked their form with a "+"– which designated them to die. Between 1939 and 1941, doctors sentenced 70,000-100,000 Germans to death through their experiments in "perfecting methods of group killings" (Fishkoff, 1996).

The Hollerith machine was used to make it easy for Nazis to locate and identify the mentally ill, handicapped, Jews, Gypsies, and other "undesirables." This machine was "a simple data-processing device which aided the Nazi regime in classifying citizens according to residence, race, religion, marital status, and other crucial criteria" (Conway, 1994).

A Tel Aviv filmmaker, Nitzan Aviram, made a ninety minute documentary entitled "Healing by Killing (Ripui b’Hareg)," in which he records the domestic euthanasia campaign and, more specifically, the participation of the German doctors. One aspect of this documentary that makes it original from any other is the fact that with the exception of one psychologist, there are no Jews in the film. Its focus is entirely on the "domestic German implications," which gives the story "a powerful, if self-consciously ironic, twist" (Fishkoff, 1996). This film reinforces the fact that the Holocaust was not just against the Jews, but against all that did not fit the Nazi "mold."

"I did it on purpose," Aviram says. "The Holocaust is so well known, and I had a story not as often told. The Holocaust started in the dark basements of German hospitals. All the elements were there. I wanted to tell that German story. . . These stories aren’t known in Germany. These people had not been interviewed before." (Fishkoff, 1996).

Pressure from the public forced Hitler to close down the domestic euthanasia program in the spring of 1941. This did not stop his extermination process, however. The same medical teams that were in charge of the euthanasia program were sent to the eastern front where they assisted in setting up Belzec and Sobibor, the first of the death camps (Fishkoff, 1996). The euthanasia program was merely a "dress rehearsal for the Holocaust" (Tarantola, 1993). In fact, many of the mass killing techniques used in the concentration camps were first developed through this program.

As Aviram notes, the majority of the German population, though they may have known about the mass killing of the Jews, were unaware of the severity of what was really happening in the concentration camps and other facilities.

The following is a short list from the numerous accounts of atrocities inflicted upon those unfortunate enough to be deemed "undesirable" by the Nazi doctors:

  ·  "To measure the limits of the human body, the Nazi physicians subjected concentration-camp inmates to high-altitude experiments, confining them in low-pressure chambers until their lungs exploded" (Silverstein, 1996).

  ·  "To discover the most effective way of rewarding German pilots who had been downed in the North Sea, they immersed prisoners in tanks of freezing water for hours, lowering their body temperatures to 26 degrees" (Silverstein, 1996).

  ·  "To gain specimens for their Jewish skeleton collection, the Nazi physicians murdered and stripped the flesh from 100 Jewish prisoners" (Silverstein, 1996).

  ·  "To compare the effectiveness of vaccines, they injected inmates with malaria, typhus,smallpox, cholera, and spotted fever" (Silverstein, 1996).

  ·  "They physician broke their subjects’ bones and then infected the wounds, fed them sea water until they had seizures and suffered cardiac arrest, operated on them with out anesthesia, . . ." (Silverstein, 1996).

  ·  “Some bodies were dissected, and their brains sent to research institutes, where scientists tried to determine the physical causes of mental illness" (Fishkoff, 1996).

  And finally, here are two personal examples told by two women who survived these experiments:

"Aviram interviewed one woman who survived a killing procedure as a small child, when she was brought along with other children from a mental hospital to the Brandenburg euthanasia center, . . . [She describes] a German nurse hurling German toddlers into the gas chamber, while she herself dawdled over untying her bootlaces" (Fishkoff, 1996).

Eva Mozes-Kor, the president of Children of Auschwitz: Nazi Deadly Camp Lab Experiments Survivors (CANDLES), was, in her words,

"a human guinea pig in the Birkenau laboratory of Dr. Josef Mengele." Dr. Mengele conducted experiments with twins in whom he would inject one twin with a germ or disease, and if that twin died, they would kill the other to compare organs at autopsy.

"Mozes-Kor almost died after a series of germ injections, but survived with her sister for liberation. She provides this pointed description of atrocity, among others: "A set of Gypsy twins was brought back from Mengele’s lab after they were sewn back to back. Mengele had attempted to create a Siamese twin by connecting blood vessels and organs. The twins screamed day and night until gangrene set in, and after three days, they died" (Tarantola, 1993).

The former examples are merely a few of the inhumanities conducted by the doctors and physicians of the Nazis.

Here is where the question is posed. Were the doctors acting of their own free will, or were they forced to do these experiments? In my research on this matter, I found numerous arguments stating the soldiers were forced to carry out their actions, but I was only able to dredge up very few arguments in the same light concerning the doctors. Henri Zukier, author of "The twisted road to genocide: on the psychological development of evil during the Holocaust," which appeared in Social Research, described the Holocaust as "a robbery gone awry, [an] unpremeditated murder committed in the course of a felony, and no grounds for character condemnation," and that " . . .the Holocaust was an accidental byproduct of the war, never planned by the Nazi regime, but improvised little by little . . .in response to perceived threats and war pressures."

The process of "bureaucratic distancing" was developed to encourage streamlined killing. The physicians who conducted the gassings and the ones who filled out the death certificates were not the same, in an attempt to “shield [them] from the full weight of responsibility" (Fishkoff, 1996). The traumatic strain caused by the initial mass killings of the firing squads was one of the main reasons why Himmler requested an alternative method. Hence, the gas chambers.

During the Doctors Trials at Nuremberg, a testimony given by Father Leo Miechalowski, who had survived the death camp experiments. He spoke of a nurse who gave him a non-harmful drug injection after he had pled with several nurses over and over again not to receive any more injections. The drug had been causing some very painful reactions in his body — "All of a sudden my heart felt like it was going to be torn out. I became insane. I completely lost my language — my ability to speak. This lasted until evening." He blatantly refused to have any more. The doctor in charge was finally called in. He heard the man’s pleas and concerns, yet still insisted that he have the injection. The said nurse must have felt sorry for the man, and therefore gave him a different injection, other than the one ordered by the doctor because "no results happened as they had done previously. The man reported that the regular injections continued after that, along with the pain. " (National Archives Record Group 238,M887, 1946-1949). This testimony illustrates that there were some people in the concentration camps who really did not feel what they were doing was morally right.

Nazi doctors gave the following arguments in their defense: "involuntary research on prisoners had a long history, prisoners were already sentenced to death, they were only following orders, there were no clear international ethics standards respecting research, the toleration of a lesser evil to tolerate a greater good, those who did not participate might have been killed" (Tarantola, 1993).

Still, the evidence pointing toward voluntary participation is overwhelming. One group, known as the functionalists, question whether the genocide was premeditated, whether it was Hitler who ordered it, or whether it was the physicians who implemented the idea (Goldhagen, 1991). "It was the medical ideal of racial hygiene that spread through German politics and lent scientific credibility to the Nazi movement from the very outset" (Tarantola, 1993).

Robert N. Proctor, Ph.D. stated, "Doctors in fact joined the Nazi party earlier and in greater numbers than any other professional group." Dr. Dina Poraty, head of the Project for the Study of Antisemitism at Tel Aviv University, added, "The German medical association was quite fanatic, and eagerly expelled its Jewish doctors. They took part willingly in the Nazification of their own profession. They were not forced." Dr. Poraty also presented the statistic that 45% of the doctors in Germany joined the Nazi party (many of those even before Hitler’s rise to power), compared to 7% of the teachers in Germany (Tarantola, 1993).

What a startling statistic! But if one were to look at the whole situation, one would see why the doctors might have been so overwhelmingly enticed by the Nazi party and what it had to offer. The Nazi’s biomedical aspect, with its focus on genetically engineering a perfect Aryan race, played on the arrogance of many of the physicians. "These doctors were handed the best laboratories, the largest budgets, the best working conditions," Porat says, "Few could resist it. In the camps, they had all the human guinea pigs a researcher could dream of." (Fishkoff, 1996). During his interview for Avriam’s documentary, Dr. Elise Huber, Berlin President of the German Medical Association, stated ‘with quiet candor,’ "Today we know and must accept the responsibility that the medical community was [involved], and that community remained silent . . . It was . . . medical megalomania that paved the way for the Nazi ideology and the Holocaust." (Fishkoff, 1996).

Aviram also interviewed several of the doctors who actually worked in the death camps. One doctor, Dr. Hans Munch, was eager to be interviewed, according to Aviram. Aviram relates, " . . . it was a kind of catharsis. But he seemed unrepentant . . . Behind his words of remorse, I didn’t really feel the grief." When Munch tells of more than 100 top medical experts from around Europe working at the Hygienic Institute at Auschwitz, where he was partially in charge, and calls their work ‘fascinating,’ his ability even today to overlook the human horror in which he participated is bonechilling. He even relates how he traveled by train to Berlin to "tell Himmler in person the [he] was refusing orders to join the selection team. [Himmler] accepted [his] refusal, and [he] resumed [his] work at the Hygienic Institute without a pause" (Fishkoff, 1996). This testimony from Dr. Munch proves even further that the physicians involved in the Holocaust were not forced, but were participants of their own free will.

In fact, there were a number of doctors who the Nazis asked to join their force in attempting to create a perfect Aryan society who refused, without harm. Psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer even led a professional struggle against the euthanasia program, and no abuse was administered to him. "As . . . historians have noted, in the hundreds of postwar trials and masses of documents, ‘not one case is known in which one person’s life was in danger or in which a person suffered serious consequences’ for refusing to obey an order to kill unarmed civilians" (cited in Zukier, 1994), though definate threats were made, and much peer pressure was administered– especially where the soldiers were concerned.

Who was the real culprit in the six-year success of the Holocaust?

Was it Hitler who authorized the soldiers’ and doctors’ actions? Was it Himmler who personally oversaw the programs from the beginning? Or, were the German doctors themselves to blame? In accordance with the research I conducted, it is my belief that without the willing participation of a large part of the German medical establishment, the Holocaust could not have taken place. It was the " . . .German doctors’ initial bending of their Hippocratic oath during the ‘mercy killing’ program, [which ultimately led] to their final moral collapse when called upon to give a spurious medical ‘aura’ to the mass exterminations . . ." (Fishkoff, 1996) that allowed the Holocaust to survive as long as it did.

Could these atrocities be repeated in our modern times? The dangers of overzealous scientific curiosity that led Nazi doctors to abandon all moral sense in pursuit of medical knowledge are far from distant in our time. Several years ago, a scandal broke out when it was discovered that some body parts used today in German medical school anatomy classes came from prisoners executed in Nazi experiments. Some doctors defended their use on the grounds that "they were so well preserved, it’s a pity to throw them away" (Fishkoff, 1996). Through these modern doctors, the atrocities are continuing.

The doctors in the Nazi regime thought they were doing a wonderful work for humanity. Few doctors who took part in the Nazi death camps were ever punished for their actions, however. At the Nuremberg Trials, the second wave of trials after those of the highest political leaders, were the trials of the top Nazi doctors. Seven received death sentences and ten were sentenced to prison terms ranging from ten years to life. Most other doctors vanished, or were reabsorbed into the medical community. What happened to the "more than 100 top medical experts from around Europe" which Dr. Munch spoke of? (Fishkoff, 1996). All the doctors who actively took part in the horrific medical experiments of the Holocaust should be punished. This action should not be reserved only for the more famous leaders. All had taken the Hippocratic oath, and all turned their backs on it.

"The doctor is the gatekeeper between life and death . . . he wields that kind of life-and-death authority," Aviram says. "But the doctor should not be a philosopher. His job is to preserve life" (Fishkoff, 1996).


Conway, H. (1994). A Lesson In History: Images from the United States Holocaust Memorial. Stanford:Softline Information, Inc.
Fishkoff, S. (1996, April 12). "They Called It Mercy Killing." Jerusalem Post, p.8.
Goldhagen, D.J. (1991). "Himmler: Reichsfuhrer-SS."
National Archives Record Group 238, M887. (October, 1946 – April, 1949). Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Law No. 10. Washington D.C.: U.S. G.P.O, 1949-1953.
Silverstein, M. (1996, October 10). "When Ethics Turned Evil: Symposium explores role of doctors in the Holocaust." Jewish Exponent.
Snell, M. (1993). "Germany’s heart: The modern taboo." New Perspectives Quarterly, pp. 1-20.
Tarantola, Daniel-Mann, Jonathan. (1993, January 1). "Medical ethics and the Nazi legacy." World & I, Vol. 8, p.358.
Zukier, H. (1994). "The twisted road to genocide: On the psychological development of evil during the Holocaust." Social Research, p. 61.

See also: New Research Documents 42,500 Nazi Ghettos Throughout Europe, The New York Times, March 2013


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